Graham Newton-Small's Story

Graham Newton-Small would be the first to tell you he was the black sheep of his family. While his siblings all went off to be lawyers and an economist—the dutiful children of a banker—Newton-Small’s only burning ambition in life was to travel. And so it was, at the age of 18, with a suitcase, a letter of recommendation to Lloyds Insurance and a hangover from his boisterous goodbye party, that Newton-Small boarded the Queen Mary bound from Sydney, Australia, for London in 1957.

Lloyds lasted less than six months. Newton-Small found much more entertaining employment tending bar in Earl’s Court, or west Sydney, as it was called for it was second home to so many Aussies. He’d save up and travel the continent with some mates, returning when a replenishment of funds was needed. It was ahead of an anticipated trip for a friend’s wedding to Sweden, which was very expensive at the time, that Newton-Small answered an advertisement in the Times of London for government drivers. Little did he suspect that he’s soon be shuttling around Winston Churchill on off days and weekends.

The former British prime minister was chatty. “So, Newton-Small, what are you doing with your life?” he’d demand.

Newton-Small replied he had no ambitions, except to travel. The response perplexed Churchill. After some drives together, Churchill made Newton-Small an offer: “Get a college degree and I’ll write you a recommendation.”

This proved too tempting. Newton-Small spent a year earning a certificate in economics from the University College of London. It was by no means a college degree, and Churchill looked at Newton-Small with no small amount of amusement when Newton-Small presented him with the certificate. But, Churchill kept his end of the bargain. “I’m going to write you a recommendation for this new thing,” Newton-Small recalls Churchill telling him, “the United Nations.” Newton-Small would spend the next 38 years at the UN.
In England

Graham Newton-Small, or Gray as his family called him, was born in a dusty Australian outback town called Inverell, near the border of Queensland in New South Wales. His father, Cecil, was the seventh son of a seventh son from a sheep farming family along New South Wales’ north coast. Lucky all his life, Cecil Newton-Small couldn’t walk into a casino without winning, even though as a conservative man he generally avoided them. He always said his greatest blessing was going deaf at the age of 20 from a hereditary ocular problem: It saved him from service in World War II where many of his mates died. Cecil became a Westpac bank manager, moving the family from dusty town to dusty town, eventually retiring as manager of Westpac’s flagship central branch in Sydney.
Gray as a baby

Graham’s mother, Clarice George, was a schoolteacher who used to make her four children practice their penmanship every night. Graham was her second child after Geoff, followed by Trevor and Cecile, her only girl. She doted on Graham, who’d been born a “blue baby.” The doctor told her he would not survive past two, but he grew into a healthy young man. By the age of six, he was the only one of her four children who had taken a shine to her favorite game, golf. They played a round or two together every weekend. Graham also became a skilled platform diver. He tried out for the Olympic team before his hearing—like his father’s—began to fail and the operation to save it barred him from his favorite sport.
Graham, later in life, with his parents

Geoff and Graham, just 18 months apart, were bundled off to boarding school at the age of eight, a tradition in Australia where farms are often so big children commuted by plane. “I worshipped my brother Geoff,” Newton-Small recalls. “He was the best student, the best athlete. A star. There was no competing with him. Next to him, everyone was a shadow.”

Geoff went on to become a lawyer and attorney general of Australia. Trevor followed in his brother’s footsteps, becoming a barrister. And Cecile became an economist who worked for Australia’s federal reserve bank and helped both Australia and Britain switch over to decimal currency system. Graham preferred a pint at the pub to studying.
Graham, center, in his rugby team photo

The UN changed Newton-Small. He found a purpose, development, and a calling, helping others. Suddenly, exploration held meaning. His first assignment was Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where he helped restore the roads the Italians built during their ill-fated invasion. Then he did a geological survey of what would become modern day Darfur. In Zambia, he worked on building up their national parks for tourism and safaris. It was there at age 35 that he met Sue Tang, a young Chinese Malay lawyer freshly arrived for a job with the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. The office tour he was assigned to give her as deputy chief of mission turned into a tour of Lusaka, which turned into dinner. By the end of dinner, Newton-Small knew she was the one. He proposed six months later during a sudden monsoon whilst on safari.
Speaking in Africa

He became the exotic uncle at family gatherings, often commanding the room with stories about places and peoples no one had ever heard of. Half a world away, his parents missed his Malawi wedding and the birth of his daughter, Jennifer, in New York. His friends were an eclectic group of United Nations staffers: a New York engineer, an Italian aristocrat, an French interpreter from Provence, a Canadian geologist who married a Japanese stewardess and Graham’s deputy from Ethiopia, a Ghanaian man who ended up marrying a Danish lawyer six inches taller than him.
Wedding day to Sue in Malawi!

These global gypsies would bump into one another in unlikely places like the Pan Am lounge in Rome or the only decent bar near the Palais des Nations in the Intercontinental Hotel in Geneva. “The world became smaller and smaller,” Newton-Small recalls. “There was suddenly less to explore and everyone felt connected to everyone. I remember being the first white man to drive into some villages in the Sudan, the townspeople fleeing before this unknown metal beast, the Land Rover. By the time the world got to Six Degree of Separation,” a movie Newton-Small loved about how everyone is connected to everyone on the planet by six degrees, “the planet felt nine sizes smaller. And all that in 25 years.”

Over the years, the field work took its toll. Newton-Small suffered from the chronic malaria he contracted in Sudan—a disease that killed a quarter of his more than 500 Sudanese workers. He increasingly sought office jobs in New York and Asia. Instead of living in a hut as he might have done in his youth at the prawn hatchery he helped start in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta in 1985, he worked in an air-conditioned office in Bangkok in a suit and tie. He only visited twice before cutting the ceremonial ribbon on the project.
Visiting communist Vietnam

His vacations got an upgrade. Whereas he crossed Mexico and America solo on a Greyhound bus at 22, middle-aged Newton-Small saw the country with his wife and then 10-year old daughter in a Mercedes he’d imported with great pride to New York from Germany. Christmas’s were spent in Tahiti, Sydney and Hawaii, where Jennifer melted into tears one year in the lobby of the Rainbow Hilton Village because she was sure that Santa would never find her. Her dad persuaded her Santa’s sleigh also landed on sand and Father Christmas had a magical ability to sense every child’s location irrespective of holiday plans.

As his daughter got older, he planned road trips with her across his native Australia, or Thailand, Namibia and Malaysia when he was living in those countries. When Jennifer was 12, the family bought a country home in the south of France, near some of Newton-Small’s former colleagues. The threesome spent long weeks every summer ambling around Provence, in search of the perfect cantaloup melon or parcel of lavender. Good food, good wine and good company are the joys of life, he would muse contentedly after a large meal under Van Gogh’s stars and cypress standing guard in the courtyard of their old farm house.
Jennifer graduates college

The travel was hard on his marriage. Sue had always outranked him in the UN and she wasn’t about to quit her job and become a diplomatic wife—in their experience some of the more miserable creatures on the planet. And he had no desire to become a diplomatic husband. They were the first married couple the UN had allowed, and it would take the organization more than 30 years to begin to coordinate married couples’ foreign assignments. Despite their efforts to be posted together, their careers led them to separate corners of the world. Jennifer went to boarding school in Connecticut. They took vacations and holidays together when they could. Only Newton-Small’s early retirement at the age of 55 allowed him to join Sue for the last years of her final posting in Geneva. Newton-Small weathered it with the casual attitude of most Australians: “No worries, mate. My mother always said, the two things you can always count on are time and change.”
Visiting Turkey in retirement

A lifetime spent trying to make the world a better place, and living in some of the world’s worst places, left both he and Sue dispirited. The roads he’d built in Ethiopia crumbled under the communist junta which had overthrown Haile Selassie in 1974. Fighting among Sudanese tribes for control of the natural resources he’d helped find in Sudan led to some of the worst bloodshed in Darfur. And the UN was as mired in bureaucracy and as irrelevant as ever. So, in retirement, he and Sue withdrew to lovely Naples, Florida. A place, he often marveled, where poverty and war didn’t exist. Jennifer lamented that no one talked about anything but golf, bridge, the beach, grandchildren and tending their gardens, but he’d only smile and say: “It’s an art to appreciate the little things in life.” His took delight later in life in reading his daughter’s dispatches as a correspondent for TIME magazine from many of those far flung places he’d sought out as a young man, and then sought to forget in his old age. “Adventure, I discovered,” he told his daughter, “was only meaningful when you had someone to share it with. And later, the adventure falls away and the only thing that’s important is the one who’s been on the road with you. And you find that if you can change one life, hers, or maybe two, yours, than that is a life well lived.”
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